Tuesday 21 November 2017

Nervy Blues steady Jose's rocking ship

Chelsea 2-0 Aston Villa

Chelsea's Diego Costa battles for control of the ball against Aston Villa's Micah Richards
Chelsea's Diego Costa battles for control of the ball against Aston Villa's Micah Richards
Chelsea's Baba Rahman
Chelsea's Ramires (left) and Cesar Azpilicueta (centre) battle for the ball with Aston Villa's Jack Grealish
Aston Villa's Ashley Westwood (left) and Chelsea's Pedro battle for the ball during the Barclays Premier League match at Stamford Bridge, London. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Saturday October 17, 2015. See PA story SOCCER Chelsea. Photo credit should read: Adam Davy/PA Wire. RESTRICTIONS: EDITORIAL USE ONLY No use with unauthorised audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or "live" services. Online in-match use limited to 45 images, no video emulation. No use in betting, games or single club/league/player publications.

Dominic Fifield

Chelsea's players have been queueing up to pledge themselves to Jose Mourinho, doing their level best to douse suggestions mutiny is rife within the ranks, though this was the show of faith the manager really required. The champions, at last, have some respite.

There were flashes of their former selves here. Most of them were fleeting, but they were still more than enough to condemn Villa to an eighth league game in succession without success. Diego Costa was mobile and threatening as he led the line, with indications prevalent that Cesc Fabregas's radar is clicking back in. That combination had been key to this team's lightning start to last term.

Plenty still remains to be done but this was a start. Indeed, the sense of crisis that lingered post-match swirled more intensely around the visitors, whose manager, Tim Sherwood, had cut a helpless figure on the touchline.

The game was nervy from the outset, an anxious confrontation between two sides stripped of confidence and conviction. The visitors would crack before the interval, Brad Guzan and Joleon Lescott laying on the lead for Chelsea, but Villa had played on their hosts' vulnerability for over half an hour by then.

There was increasingly familiar indecision at the heart of the champions' rearguard. Jordan Ayew exposed that when he collected possession down the opposite flank, the forward ambling easily away from the attentions of Fabregas and Cesar Azpilicueta before squaring into the penalty area where Rudy Gestede had eked out a yard of space in front of John Terry. Yet his effort looped over the bar, and Chelsea breathed again.

Their own line-up had been freshened up, Mourinho having left Eden Hazard on the bench alongside Gary Cahill and Nemanja Matic. Ruben Loftus-Cheek, in an advanced role just behind Costa, rampaged forward impressively when he could before being withdrawn at the break, with Willian and Pedro busy down the flanks. But, for all their willingness, the home side required a helping hand.

Villa obligingly self-destructed 11 minutes from the interval as Guzan, under vague pressure from Pedro, scuffed a clearance awkwardly towards Lescott, who was too startled to control. Willian anticipated the error and stole possession, darting free and into the area, where he centred unselfishly for Costa to convert into an empty net.

Sherwood has his own issues to confront, with his team ensconced in the relegation zone and his future in doubt. Their solitary league success is a fast-fading memory, with the club's summer recruitment coming under increasing scrutiny. They were neat enough here, but there was no bite to offer a route back into the contest.

Chelsea had hardly threatened after the interval when Fabregas was permitted space in which to clip a pass to Costa at the far post. The striker controlled on his chest before spitting away a low shot which flicked up off Hutton's calf and drifted beyond the goalkeeper. It was another horrible concession, but the hosts had breathing space. Up in his box, even Roman Abramovich mustered a smile. Too much of this season has been traumatic. There was relief to be had in what, not long ago, would have been considered an unremarkable success.


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